Those who know me well can tell you all about my deep infatuation with the 1990s era of hip-hop music. Then again, those same people are most likely just as obsessed with that era — the burgeoning adolescence of a genre old enough to pick out its own clothes, but not quite old enough to vote. It was an era where the art found its collective voice and built upon the foundation laid by the Kool Hercs, Afrika Bambaataas and Melle Mels of the world. As free and jovial as the early 1980s were for hip-hop, the 1990s were just as carefree, except with more grit and a few more parental advisory stickers.
Somewhere along the way, however, that golden era eroded and many of us — now in our late twenties and early thirties — matured and transitioned into lives of car payments, marriage and mortgages. At least in my case, I fell out of love with hip-hop because it just wasn’t the same entity I once knew and adored. That’s why I couldn’t help but smile when listening to The Stupendous Adventures of Marco Polo, a 16-track firestorm in which Polo provides the soundscape for several popular and lesser known emcees to express their views on radio programming and lackluster artistry. Much of this recording is dedicated to raw, mind-bending, skill-sharpening lyricism, where battle rhymes are abundant and vinyl is scratched at a breakneck pace.
It’s not until Stupendous Adventures is almost complete that Surreal asks a pivotal question on “So Basic”. “What happened to that hip-hop that we used to love so much,” he asks upon the song’s introduction. “Wasn’t all [these] extracurricular things going on, it was all about the beats, the rhymes, the flow.” That track, punctuated by the dusty sounds of its upright bass and jazz piano, provides a framework for the emcee to ride the instrumental with extreme confidence and brutally honest bravado. Marco Polo’s compilation — the producer’s fourth overall release — teeters mostly between cocky “I’m better than you and I dare you to battle me” assurance and disgruntled musings about the rise of the skinny jeans, pastel-colored movement. At times, the emcees seemingly cling to the wonder years, as when the culture was new. “The Bridge”, a three-minute song where Promise promises to restore hip-hop, is an example of such a complaint.
Projects like The Stupendous Adventures of Marco Polo are needed occasionally to give disenchanted listeners something to embrace. It reminds them of the days when Michael Jordan soared through the skies and emcees could sell records based solely on their capabilities to shred instrumentals. Nowadays, not so much, but that’s not a bad thing. Movements are supposed to evolve, and I’m certain the pioneers of hip-hop said the same things about us some 19 years ago. With The Stupendous Adventures of Marco Polo, the producer and his cast of characters do a remarkable job of crafting a love letter to the ‘90s that is wildly nostalgic, yet sufficiently brooding and moody. If the era was the personification of hip-hop’s pubescence, then Polo’s Stupendous Adventures is the perfect reflection of such a restless and expressive moment in time.